Sunday, February 22, 2015

And When She Got There, The Cupbord Was Bare

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: So I got home Friday at nine in the evening to a mostly empty household - Ross and Youngest were in New York City for their three-day holiday (it's been school vacation week in Maine) and the Smithie was off for her usual Friday-through-Monday stint in graduate school. The house looked about like what you'd expect after Mom had been gone for two weeks - it was a toss up between trying to clean up or just torching the place and starting over from scratch.

The fridge had several crumpled bags with bits and pieces of fast food meals in them, but the pantry was denuded, as was the freezer. (Don't ask about the vegetable bin.) Since by dinnertime it was snowing - again - and the roads were getting extremely slippery, I decided to stay put and see what I could eke out of the cupboards.

This led me to today's recipes: three standby entrees I almost always have ingredients for. You probably do too. None of these are even remotely gourmet, but they're all quick, easy, and guaranteed to appeal to a wide range of palates, especially of those palates are younger than 25.


Can of diced or stewed or ground tomatoes*
Cheese slices
optional: sliced onions, green peppers, olives or other pizza toppings.

Make enough Bisquick dough to cover a baking sheet. Drain the excess juice from the tomatoes and spread them evenly over the dough. Lay the cheese slices over the tomatoes. If you have other toppings, put them on the tomatoes and then add the cheese. You could sprinkle it with garlic powder, but you'll miss the genuine Central New York flavor (about as far from Italy as you can get.)

Bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.

* You can of course use pizza or spaghetti sauce and mozzarella, but this recipe assumes you're down to the real basics.


2-3 cans black beans, drained
1 can diced tomatoes (I usually have the kind with jalapeno peppers in them, if you don't, throw in a few jalepenos or several spoonfuls of salsa)
1 can or 2 cups chicken broth

Dump the beans and tomatoes into a food processor or blender. Puree until they are smooth.
Pour mix into pan, add chicken broth and simmer. Add a generous amount of cumin, until it tastes like real Mexican cooking. You can also add Habenero pepper/Tabasco/etc to taste if you like it hotter.

If your family hasn't devoured all the tortilla chips while you were gone, they make a nice accompaniment.


Now we're getting to the real grad-school poverty stuff.

Spaghetti, cooked and drained.
Olive Oil
Parmesan cheese
Italian seasoning and garlic powder

Toss the hot spaghetti with a generous amount of olive oil. Shake on the Italian seasoning, garlic powder and top with a lot of Parmesan.

My husband actually considers this a great treat. Maybe because I've never shown him how I make it.

What are your down-to-the-last-few-cans recipes, dear readers?


  1. What to make when the cupboard is bare? That Bisquick Julia has will also make pancakes, waffles, or biscuits.
    You can add a can of tuna to Julia's cooked pasta and parmesan cheese to make a tuna noodle dish. [Of course, if you have bacon in the freezer and an egg or two, you can get really fancy and turn the pasta into carbonara.]

  2. It has been so cold here this winter that I have actually been reduced to the back-of-the-pantry stuff. I usually resort to soup.

    I made potato leek soup with one leek that had seen better days, one potato, a rib of celery (finely chopped) and a grated carrot, some chicken broth and some grated Parmesan cheese. I have an immersible blender that goes right in the pot once the stuff has softebed.

    There is always ramen soup made with 3 cups of water instead of the recommended two, half the package of seasoning (I use the shrimp kind), a couple of frozen shrimp if you have them in the freezer, a handful of frozen peas, and a finely chopped rib of celery. A couple of finely chopped mushrooms if you have them, and a diced green onion stem, will improve it.

    When our stores have specials on boneless, skinless chicken breasts, they sell the bones (ribs with a fair amount of meat on them, sometimes the backs) really cheaply, and I freeze them in Ziploc bags. No need to defrost-- drop them into a large pot of water with a quartered small onion, the tops of some celery, a diced carrot, a parsnip if you have it (or even a turnip), some mushrooms if you have them, a handful of dried lima beans, a handful of barley, and salt and white pepper. Just boil away-- it'll be soup in about an hour (and no need to skim it-- it reabsorbs that protein and tastes just fine). Later you can pull the chicken off the bones, discard the bones and throw the chicken pieces back in.

    Or there's the comfort food of my childhood: smaller size noodles, drained. Add a pat of added butter, salt to taste, and some cottage cheese. Toss it together, and eat it like that, or add some grated Parmesan and bake it for a bit.

    Oh, yeah, and eggs. Every kind of omelet in the world (whatever you've got can go in-- in a pinch, it can be jelly). Or hard boiled (whole or as egg salad, made with mustard if there's no mayo). Or crispy fried (if there's no bread around, grate a potato and fry that to go with the egg-- a variation on hash browns).

    If all else fails, make a pot of rice, use beef bouillon to make a brown gravy, and add a can of mushrooms if you have one. (Or just mix in some soy sauce; a little wasabi is optional. I don't know what you call that, but it will fill you up.)

  3. An even simpler version of potato soup--dice potatoes, cover with enough water to make soup, salt and pepper to taste. Add a few pats of butter. Cook until potatoes are tender and the water has cooked down enough to make broth. Serve with some grated cheese, crumbled bacon, green onion bits, if you have them. Adjust seasonings if desired. Crackers, or bread, etc., to go with.

  4. stovetop mac and cheese: cook and drain 1/2 cup dry macaroni. Combine 2 egg yolks, 1/2 cup milk, and 2 oz grated cheddar cheese. Add sauce to pasta, cook on low heat till thick, stirring constantly.

    I keep long-life milk on the shelf in the pantry.

  5. This is giving me heartburn. And we're showing our ages: my daughters' list would include ramen stir fry with any veggies still standing in the crisper.

    FChurch - that's my potato soup only with chicken stock (or bouillion)and whirred with an immersion blender... add cooked broccoli and it's broccoli soup. Ditto asparagus or peas or whatever you've got.

  6. Equal parts lentils and brown rice with water, of course. A can of tomatoes if you still have them. Likewise celery, carrots, and onions. Cook until it's soup -- about 45 minutes. It's got no business tasting as good as it does. From a book by Arthur Schwartz called What to Cook When You Think There's Nothing in the House to Eat.

  7. I love the spaghetti, actually. When I was pregnant, the Italian family-owned restaurant behind my house insisted I come over at least once a week so Mama could feed me. With my weirded out appetite, the only thing I could keep down for ages was garlic/butter/cheese spaghetti, made lovingly by fussy Italian hands. It'll always have a special place in my heart!

  8. Julia, I'm so impressed with your cupboard bare meals. The spaghetti meal is actually one I enjoy and used to eat a lot. My daughter and I both like spaghetti that way. And, you are so clever not to tell Ross how you fix it. Hehehe!

    Ellen, I love the chicken soup idea and throwing in the frozen chicken breast without defrosting is brilliant. Thanks for that tip. Joan, I like the pancakes idea for the Bisquick, too. In fact, it seems you all would be great people to have around to ensure I didn't starve.

    Now, I feel guilted into making that vegetable soup this afternoon, as I actually bought all the ingredients for it Friday. It will be simple though.

  9. I have many veggies frozen from last summer's CSA shares, and add quantities to nearly everything. There are some canned goods in the pantry and some bacon in the freezer, separated and cut into half-slices to be used more for flavor than quantity. I tend to improvise most of the time, throwing together whatever comes forward, so I appreciate these suggestions. Yesterday the sampler at Costco mentioned using the last bit of chips or cereal as breading or topping, and I used the hard last bit of cheese to top chili the other day. Even so, I felt much better after I brought home eggs . . . and therefore got to make French toast this morning.

  10. Tuna!

    And I love plain spaghetti with cheese...I add garlic-infused olive oil and some red pepper flakes. Yum.

    But, thanks to Joan, now I will put the tuna and pasta together! I NEVER thought of that. And add those frozen peas that always seem to be there, right?

    Welcome home, Julia!